Field of Dreams

Being at the ballpark with my dad was as close to perfect as my life would ever be

It was named Connie Mack Stadium. That's where the Philadelphia Phillies played: my home town favorites, my heroes, the guys I wanted to grow up to be. Guys like Robin Roberts, Del Ennis, Granny Hamner—who played shortstop and who Dad said was "tough as nails." The big wad in Granny's cheek was chewing tobacco Dad told me. He was always spitting—Granny that is, not Dad. Dad smoked cigars as we sat in the stadium on those warm summer days. I was happy then. Maybe being at the ballpark with my dad and my brother Paul was as close to perfect as my life would ever be.

Sports were the only way and only time that I was able to connect with my father. In our regular day-to-day life, he was distant, silent, sometimes threatening. Usually, I tried to avoid him; Mom was always telling us not to "bother your father." Like he might explode if pushed the wrong way.

We would arrive at the ballpark early. And, before the game, we would go to a little hole-in-the-wall soda fountain where Dad ordered us hot dogs with chili sauce and chocolate cream sodas. I can't tell you with words how delicious that food was, unlike anything we ate at home. I can tell you how I felt about my father then. I thought he was perfect—strong, smart, even kind. I loved him. In a way I could never have spoken out loud.

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Dad always got us good seats, down close to the field on the first-base side. That would be the best place to catch a foul ball, Dad said, though we never did get one. Walking out from the dark tunnels into the bright interior of the stadium took my breath away. It was so big, so vivid, with the electric green outfield grass and the brown dirt of the infield, lovingly tended to by the grounds crew. Some of the players would already be out on the field taking batting practice. Someday, I told myself, I would be out there too, wearing a red, pinstriped Phillies uniform. I didn't tell Dad that, though. I was afraid he might have laughed at me and that would have ruined everything.

We'd buy scorecards before we got to our seats from a guy who hollered, "Get your pro-grammms here." Dad bought two, and gave one to me. Paul was still too young to know how to keep score, and didn't seem all that interested anyhow. Dad, though, had taught me how to do it—all the symbols and numbers you had to know to keep a running account of who had done what at each turn of bat. It was complicated, but I picked it up quickly because Dad expected me to, and because, well, because I wanted more than anything to please him.

Once the game got underway, we settled back into the hard wooden seats and became totally absorbed in the action on the field. Dad kept up a running commentary on the game, yelling encouragements at the Philly batters: "Come on, Richie. A little bingle. Let's get it going." Richie Ashburn was the leadoff hitter for the Phils and consistently had one of the best batting averages in the National League. Dad turned to me almost every time Ashburn came to the plate and said, "See, you don't have to be a slugger to be a great player."

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If Ashburn worked the count to three and two, Dad would yell out, "A walk's as good as a hit." There were dozens of these phrases he'd use, depending on the situation and who was at the plate. The other men in the seats around us were doing the same, whooping and yelling, and I would also join in, though my voice wasn't loud enough to be heard. Still, it felt good, like I was part of something bigger than myself.

Dad's loudest comments were reserved for the opposing team. He'd yell so loud I was sure the players could hear him. "No hitter, no hitter. This guy's a bum. Strike him out. Put it in his ear." The last one, I finally figured out to mean, was for our pitcher to hit the opposing batter in the head with the baseball. I don't think Dad meant that seriously. It was part of the game. We were all, us Philly fans, yelling and cheering together for the team. And when a Phillie player knocked one out of the ballpark for a homerun, we would all jump up as one body, screaming and stomping.

Dad and I stood side by side clapping our hands as Willy "Puddinghead" Jones or catcher Stan Lopata or Elmer Valo circled the bases. If the home run put us ahead or won the game, Dad maybe even slapped me on the back. My little brother, Paul, cheered too, but I got the feeling that he was doing it just because everybody else was and as soon as he could, he'd sit back down and continue eating salted peanuts, the shells now scattered all under his seat.

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By the ninth inning, I was tired and ready to leave. Including the drive over and all, we would have probably been gone for five hours or more. On the other hand, I really wasn't ready for the day at the park to end. I knew that once we left Connie Mack Stadium and got back in the car everything would go back to the way it was. Dad would stop talking, stop buying us treats. He'd drive us straight home, wouldn't look at me, and I, smart boy that I was, would also stop chattering, stop asking questions, stop being happy. And wait for the next day at the ballpark.

By the time I graduated from high school, Dad and I had stopped going to the games. We didn't have much to say to each other—not even about the Phillies. And once I left for college and continued on with my life, Dad and I grew even further apart. I imagined that he was angry that I had not followed in his footsteps to become a doctor, upset that I married a non-Jewish woman, disappointed that I had moved my family 3,000 miles away from Philadelphia. Our days at Connie Mack Stadium were a distant memory.

Then, in 1980, Mom and Dad came to visit us in Seattle. Maybe because he was now retired, Dad seemed gentler, more open. He allowed my young daughters to climb onto his lap as he read them book after book. I bought us tickets to go see the Mariners play—good seats too, right on the first-base side, like Dad taught me. We drank beer and ate peanuts and I kept score in the program. Dad still cheered and jeered at the action on the field. I did too. We shared the same vocabulary once again. Father and son.

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